I want to share a story about my great-grandmother, Antonia Tognini. It’s a story about the kind of courage which, when I think about it, is extraordinary, yet for so many like her at the time, pretty common.
I only heard this story for the first time a few days ago and it feels pretty timely, to be honest.
I had been thinking a lot about what courage looks like for women these days, what kind of message we’re sending to the next generations of young girls, like my nearly 14-year-old niece, for example. Young women who are growing up in a world which is complex, challenging and quite often, very unfair.
My thoughts have been gestating in an incubator red-hot with disdain since a bunch of Hollywood actresses implied that courage is as simple as wearing a borrowed black frock and tweeting about it. More on that shortly but first, this story and a quick history lesson.
When the Italians ditched Mussolini towards the end of 1943, signing an armistice with the Allies, the Germans weren’t too thrilled. They responded by mobilising troops from Rome towards the north. In playing to type, Italy was divided. Diehard Black Shirts fought with the Germans to the end. The Italian Resistance fired up across the country.
The result? A quasi-civil war. As generally happens during a war, regular search and arrest activities happened in places where the Partisans were known to be active, such as villages like my family’s in the far north.
The story I am sharing, albeit a greatly condensed version, is how my great nonna Antonia harnessed balls of solid brass and bluffed the nazis to save her son’s life, and her own.
It happened like this. Antonia was unlucky enough to be home one day when the fascists came looking for my then-teenage nonno who had just joined the resistance and was hiding out nearby. In short, Antonia played the dumb peasant, swore black and blue he’d nicked off to Switzerland.
As I type these words they feel strangely surreal.
When I stop to think about what she did, what was on the line, I can only imagine her stomach churning. Perhaps a trickle of sweat down her back, knowing that if she were caught lying it was a firing squad in the village square for both, with the house being torched to ram the point home.
Now, I’m not suggesting this is the only face of courage, though it’s a pretty good one.
What I am suggesting is that these are the stories that we should be sharing with the young girls in our lives. This is the inspiration we should be offering them, not the populist dross we’ve been served up by a parade of borrowed black frocks at the Golden Globes.
Case in point. Ask the women whose courage in speaking up actually started this Hollywood hashtag party. They refused to work with men who tried to compromise them. They paid dearly. And perhaps not surprisingly, the first to break the silence claim they weren’t invited. “Victims aren’t glamorous enough,” tweeted one. No free black frocks for them. What a sham.
What a message to send, glorifying that which is cheap, easy and ultimately disposable.
Not only does it send the message that courage doesn’t come at a cost, it also tells young women that significant social change is easy, swift, fun and super-stylish.
Sadly, just about every woman I know has faced unwanted or inappropriate sexual behaviour at work. That’s not an exaggeration. I know I have, in nearly 25 years of professional life.
In my case, I didn’t navigate through by getting the sisters to wear fuchsia and tweet about it. I dealt with it because women and, importantly, brilliant, strong and decent men in my world affirmed my conviction that taking a stand, private or public, will always cost me but never rob me.
Has it cost me work? Yes. Do I regret it? Not on your life.
I will make this one concession though. The intent behind the whole “Why I Wear Black” And “TimesUp” campaigns is admirable. They are trying to build further momentum behind what can only be described as a ferocious, overdue and collective cry of enough is enough.
But intent without substance is like wind without a sail. Ineffective.
The degree of change needed to make sure this sort of behaviour is nuked off the landscape is driven by the substance of women like my great-grandmother and probably many of yours too. Aunts. Sisters. Mothers. Partners. Grandmothers.
Theirs are the stories of courage we should be holding up as the standard.
Courage is the battered woman who packs her car in the middle of the night and floors it, having no clue what’s next.
It’s the single mum who keeps it together day in and out to provide a stable environment for her kids.
It’s the woman who draws a line in the sand about inappropriate behaviour at work, without certainty of having any support let alone a positive outcome, fully aware that there may be a cost, but does it anyway. Without fanfare. Without a tweet.
These are the women who deserve our admiration. These are the women who we should be showing our young girls and saying, see? If she can be brave, you can too.